Strategic Review – Minority Report

The Stratgic Review Of Gloucester Secondary Schools Working Party Minority Report

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September 2003


(Headmaster, Sir Thomas Rich’s)

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I have prepared this Minority Report based upon all the evidence which was available to the Working Party. Its purpose is simply to show that

(a) the conclusions of the Main Report are, at best, questionable, at worst wrong;
(b) the resultant ‘options’ are the wrong answers to the wrong questions.

I was invited to become a member of the Gloucester City Secondary Schools Review Working Party. I accepted and attended all but one of the eight meetings. Initial progress was slow as we grappled with the complexity of the task, but we gradually established what questions to ask and what data we required. By the end of the fifth meeting we felt we had most of the information we needed. However, at the next meeting, before we had time to analyse and attempt to draw conclusions from the data, options were presented to us. We were not given time to discuss them, although they remained in the minutes, until the final meeting, held two days after the options had been presented to councillors.

Also at our final meeting we were presented with conclusions, or “strategic outcomes”, which were highly subjective, together with the “options”, not one of which had been suggested by anyone at the Working Party and none had been discussed. Yet we were being asked to sign up to all this. I voiced my concern that the Working Group was simply used as puppets by the Officers to give legitimacy to their plans.

I was unwilling to be a signatory to what was a report prepared, in effect, solely by the Officers and so I had no alternative but to resign. I felt that the report put to us was shoddy. It was short of imagination or initiative, there was no exploration of new ideas, it was based upon inadequate research, naive and biased conclusions, and “options” which reveal an embarrassing paucity of thought. Gloucester children, parents, teachers and Governors deserve better, the “options” would serve only to damage current provision.

My kindest conclusion is that the task was too great to be completed in one term. The absence of clarity, of carefully constructed and soundly based conclusions, of research and of initiative is an inevitable result. If the outcome is ‘to last for a minimum of ten years’, as we are told, the planning cannot be rushed in this way. Excessive haste leads to mistakes. However urgent a review may be deemed, the future of the City’s children is far too important to risk in this headlong rush to “do something”.

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Strategic Outcomes

1. Disparity in School Performance

This is a central argument behind the rationale for reviewing secondary schooling in Gloucester City – as against any other region or indeed across the County. The allegation is that there is too great a disparity between schools and pupils under-perform at all ability levels.

Is Gloucester City Secondary Education the Sick Child of the County ?

  • Gloucestershire is the 7th highest achieving LEA in England and Wales, despite low funding, with Ofsted praise for results at all levels.
  • Within the County, Gloucester City is, by most measures, the most socially deprived area e.g. highest unemployment (3.4%), highest ethnic population (4.7%), almost all the County’s asylum seekers.
  • And yet Gloucester City has the highest proportion of 16 year olds staying in education (82%).
  • Most unusually Gloucester City can only support one (small) independent school – cf. 4 large independents in Cheltenham and 3 in Worcester – a remarkably strong indicator of a healthy maintained sector.
  • The officers were asked by the Working Party to compare results with similar areas for which data is available, specifically Plymouth, Torbay, Bournemouth. This data was never provided. Instead Gloucester was compared to Cheltenham! Even so, in 2 of the 5 quintiles, Gloucester children performed better. (If it had not been for 2 Gloucester schools, the City would have outperformed the Georgian affluence in all quintiles.) Instead of a cause for celebration this was seen as “systemic failure in Gloucester”.

2. Achieving Balance and Stability

Another key argument, indeed the main driver behind most options, seems to be the need to reduce capacity.

Are We Facing Falling Rolls ?

The LEA’s officers provided the following graph of projected secondary pupil numbers in Gloucester:

  • Secondary pupil numbers, based on children currently in Gloucester schools, are expected to decline by 630 in 2010.
  • Gloucester City has more future housing planned than any other area in the County. The LEA estimates that between 750 and 1,200 additional secondary pupils will enter the system by 2010.
  • The graph shows that current capacity should, just about, cope when the peak is reached in 2007/8 Some surplus capacity is necessary if the system is to provide any flexibility. The alternative would be to shoe-horn children into schools they have no wish to attend.
  • Eleven of the City’s thirteen secondary schools are over-subscribed. Closure or reduction in capacity will exacerbate the problem.

3. Making Local the Natural Choice

A picture has been painted of hordes of pupils travelling vast distances to school. Is this what actually happens?

Bussing – Bete Noir or Red Herring ?

  • 600 secondary pupils travel out of Gloucester to school.
  • 1,600 secondary pupils travel into Gloucester to school.
  • The movement of pupils into/out of Gloucester has no effect upon ability distribution: the full range of abilities, in equal proportions, travel in both directions.
  • The average distance travelled to school by pupils is, for most Gloucester schools, about 2 miles, and for no school is the average more than 5 miles.
  • The average travel distance for pupils in Gloucester secondary schools is 2.4 miles.

4. Working Together

Collaborative 16-plus provision is already developing where there is need. The idea of setting up a “specialist centre” at the institution which currently achieves the lowest post-16 examination standards, indeed ranks amongst the poorest in the country, is curious.

5. Developing Individual Strength

The city’s secondary schools are managing to develop their individual characteristics without help from the LEA. Most secondaries are now Specialist Schools, some are Grammars, some are single-sex. “Distinctiveness and diversity” are the stated LEA aims – they already exist, the ‘options’ would reduce this and step back towards grey uniformity. Hard-won Specialist School status would be lost if schools were to merge, amalgamate or close.

The oft-quoted figure of 22% of Gloucester children at selective schools is wrong. 22% of children at Gloucester secondary schools are in Grammar Schools, but many of these travel into Gloucester, they are not Gloucester children. For example about half of Sir Thomas Rich’s and The High School pupils travel into Gloucester. So the true figure for selection amongst Gloucester pupils is closer to 10%.

“Complex admissions procedures” have been cited as a problem. Yet Schools Admissions was one of the few County Council sectors which drew Ofsted praise. Over 92% of parents get their first choice of secondary school and almost all others get their second. In 2002 there were 115 appeals, almost all for the Stroud area and Farmor’s School. These allegedly ‘complex’ procedures seem to work remarkably effectively – and from next year the LEA is required to take overall control of admissions in all secondary schools which will further improve co-ordination.

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The two key factors which the LEA has used to justify the need for reviewing Gloucester schools are (1) there is too great a disparity between performance, (2) there is over-capacity. The evidence does not support either assertion.

1. Disparity in School Performance

In other words, why review all Gloucester secondaries ?

  • There are 13 secondary schools in Gloucester City – all are popular, full or over-full, except Central Technology College (81 pupils in 150 Year 7 places) and Oxstalls Community School (116 pupils in 150 places).
  • Gloucester’s secondaries are extremely cost effective, the annual costs per pupil are in the range £2636 to £3438 – except Central (£4212) and Oxstalls (£4374).
  • Exclusions from Gloucester secondaries are well below national levels, except at Central and Oxstalls which provide the majority of the city’s exclusions, permanent and fixed-term.
  • Pupil absence rates are well below national figures, except at Central and Oxstalls which are the only schools to lose over 500 pupil days p.a. each.
  • The value-added data at Key Stage 4 range from 97.4 to 103.7, except for Central (94.2) and Oxstalls (96.7).

It is worth adding that the City Headteachers asked the LEA to use the latest figures but none from 2003 were provided.

If there are problems in Gloucester they are not in eleven of the thirteen schools. Indeed congratulations are due to Brockworth, Beaufort and Barnwood Park Schools which have all seen strong improvements in results and popularity following the appointment of new Headteachers.

With regard to Central and Oxstalls, both are in Gloucester’s Education Action Zone – what has it done for these schools? What has the LEA’s School Improvement Service done to support these schools – it is, after all, their main task to address underperformance? The Gloucester City Headteachers asked the Working Party to investigate innovative, exciting new approaches, to research initiatives and novel ideas e.g. City Academy status, local business support and collaboration, development of specialisms (Central and Oxstalls are the almost the only non-Specialist Schools), Fresh Start schemes – none of this materialised.

2. Achieving Balance and Stability

Reducing ‘surplus capacity’ is a main objective for the officers, the majority of their options are justified through reducing secondary places in Gloucester.

Yet the LEA’s own graph predicts that pupil numbers will rise for the next five years – it is folly to plan for closure/reduction in the certain knowledge that this will leave too few places in the near future. The plans take no account of new housing and the predicted 750-1,200 additional secondary pupils, let alone any increased influx from outside the city. In the 1980s the city lost Hucclecote, Longlevens and Colwell Schools – only to face shortages within ten years which required substantial investment. The mistakes of history should not be repeated.

3. Making Local the Natural Choice

Worries about pupils travelling large distances to and from school are not supported by the facts. The average travel distance for Gloucester City secondary children is only 2.4 miles. Whether too many are driven this distance by parents, rather than walk or cycle, is for parents to decide.

Indeed pupils travelling to school is a manifestation of parental choice. Parents now exercise their right to look around and consider which secondary school best suits their child – and it is their prerogative to send their child to whichever school they prefer, irrespective of distance. It is an inevitable consequence of having a range of “distinctiveness and diversity” (stated as a desirable outcome of the Review) that some schools will suit some children better than others. We have moved away from the ‘one size fits all’ secondary school determined solely by post-code – it seems peculiar for the LEA to suggest a return.

The options would certainly reduce one side of the equation – fewer children would travel into Gloucester as the educational provision is reduced. However more would travel out. For example if a high-performing school is closed/reduced, pupils will not fill up ’empty’ schools, they will either:

  • not travel into Gloucester;
  • travel outside Gloucester, adding to the exodus towards Newent (currently taking 197 Gloucester children daily), Pate’s (103 daily), the Stroud Grammars (106) and Tewkesbury (38);
  • attend an independent school;
  • increase pressure on popular schools leading to more selection by post-code i.e. by wealth.

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I write as Headmaster of a selective school in Gloucester so my perspective may be biased. But, like the Leader of the Council (as reported in The Citizen), I was under the impression that the Review would not be targeting selection. We were obviously misled.

I would question the legality of an LEA interfering with selective schools. However much it might feel it ought to be able to do so, the 1998 Education Act states very clearly that the future of selection in any school is to be determined by the parents of children at its feeder primary schools. The principle and letter of the law are quite specific: neither LEA officers nor councillors may interfere. Is the County Council assured that the options which would affect Grammar Schools are within its powers, are they confident of resisting legal challenge from a School’s Governors or the National Grammar Schools Association i.e. would it be acting illegally?

The options seem to be an attempt to return to the discredited days of ‘social engineering’, in this case denying opportunities to parents which have been enjoyed by at least three LEA officers on the Working Party – the chance to send their children to Grammar Schools. This piece of social engineering would close places at popular, over-subscribed schools in order to force children to attend less popular schools, which is completely contrary to Government policy and to the Council’s own School Organisation Plan.

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